HUTCHINSON — For the first time in 28 years, Mike O’Neal could go to the State Fair and not have to worry about asking people to vote for him.
O’Neal, speaker of the Kansas House, had been campaigning at the fair since his first run in1984. Because he’ll retire when his term ends in January, he attended the fair this year as more or less a civilian, although he still spent some time Saturday talking to voters around the Republican Party’s booth.
Some habits are hard to break.
“Historically, this is where a lot of campaigns get started,” he said. “It’s a candidate-rich, voter-rich environment, at the right time in the election cycle. It’s been that way for 100 years.”
In an era when elections have become a winner-take-all blood sport, politics at the fair is like stepping back to a more genteel time.
It’s retail politics. Making eye contact. Talking to voters one on one. The old-fashioned politics of shaking hands and kissing babies.
“To me, it’s more of a family reunion than a political event,” said Gov. Sam Brownback, who put in some face time at his booth at the Meadowlark Building. “After some of the battles subside, you still have a relationship” with opponents.
Brownback joked around with two of his former colleagues from Congress, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and former Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman.
Before all three took the stage at the Bretz Arena for a live radio program on farm policy, Roberts scared up a trick mirror that makes people look thinner and quipped that it was the “Glickman weight-loss plan.”
“I’m probably going to be the foil for these guys,” Brownback said of Roberts and Glickman, both of whom are known for mixing humor with politics.
Glickman said he campaigned at the fair every year he ran and has a special soft spot for Hutchinson.
“Reno County is responsible for me being elected in 1976 when I ran the first time,” Glickman said.
Back then the county was part of the Wichita-based 4th District “and they put me over the top,” he said.
At the fair, no one accuses anyone else of being a communist or compares anyone to Hitler. The Republican and Democratic booths are within steps of each other, but no one hurls epithets or anything else.
In fact, the banner over the Democrats’ booth reads “Now more than ever,” once the slogan of Republican President Richard Nixon.
It’s kind of like political environmentalism. “There’s no harm having a recycled slogan,” quipped John Willoughby, a retired dean of academics from Southwestern College who’s running as a Democrat in the 100th House District in Wichita.
Voters seem to enjoy their vacation from the world of half-true attack ads and talking heads talking over each other.
Jennifer Vierthaler of Haven stopped by the Democratic booth to pick up a button with President Obama’s picture to wear around the fairgrounds.
“This is my first time getting a button, but I’m a strong Democrat,” Vierthaler said.
As a blue chip floating in a sea of Republican red, “I’ve had to bite my tongue a lot of times” to keep the peace with her friends, she said.
She said she supports the president’s re-election because she thinks he’s more in tune with women’s issues and he’ll do more to help people who are down on their luck in tough economic times.
“I have a friend who’s on public assistance, and she’s a Republican,” she said. “It makes no sense to me.”
Lillian Stone of Dallas travels the country selling sunglasses at fairs, and took one of the free Mitt Romney yard signs the Republicans had on offer.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve always voted Democratic until this year,” she said. “I just think we need a change in our government.”
And while she can’t vote for any of the Kansas politicians who were on hand stumping for votes, she said, “I think it’s really smart for them to do that.
“People may not have thought about them or heard of them until now,” she said.